Risk of a Blaze Goes With the Territory : Development: Hillside homes attract buyers despite the vulnerability to fire. Last week's destruction in Glendale is unlikely to settle controversy over building.


It was an especially busy week for bulldozers in Glendale. On one hillside, they could be seen scraping up the charred debris of 46 homes destroyed in an arson fire while, just over a ridge, other bulldozers leveled dirt for yet another hillside development.

And so it goes in Glendale, a city of 153,000 that sits at the base of two ranges, the Verdugo Mountains and the San Rafael Hills. Many people see these hills as the last, best hope for a house with a view. Others see them as vulnerable targets of overdevelopment.

Although the fire last Wednesday provided fodder for those in Glendale who would stop the march to build on its hills, it is not likely to settle a long-running but escalating controversy over development.

"Fire is always a problem, but Glendale is land-locked," said Mayor Larry Zarian. "The only area we can grow into is the hills. I don't condone that. I don't like that. But that's the way it is."

The City Council, pressured by homeowners who don't want hillside homes looming over their hillside homes, or blocking their views, last February instituted a moratorium that limited to 100 the number of houses that could be approved for construction on Glendale hills over the next 18 months. Already approved developments were not affected.

Fire hazard has not been a major rallying point in the fight to check a flurry of hillside development in Glendale during the past decade. It might now receive more prominence in the debate.

On Friday, two days after the big blaze, charred shards filled the lot where Youngsuk Jun's eastern Glendale house used to stand. Even the moist aloe plants that once divided his back yard from a steep, brushy slope were crisp black.

And the hills behind his home, which were scorched bald by the wildfire, remain the tentative site for at least 40 new houses.

"I've been living here seven years," Jun said. "Even though I knew this was a fire area, it never happened to me. So I thought I was safe."

Houses perched on hills are especially susceptible to fire because heat rises naturally, baking the slope in front of the fire and causing flames to leap up the hill, said Fire Chief John Montenero. Drafts build in the canyons below, fanning those flames higher and hotter. It is generally believed by firefighters that blazes burn uphill 16 times faster than they do downhill.

"It's like an explosion," Montenero said. "Add the wind and it's like a whoosh--the house is just gone."

Such scenarios of doom hardly intrude upon new home-buyers scouting the hills above Glendale. Instead, what they see are views of meandering canyons and of city skylines, a little breathing room in a metropolitan region that is increasingly congested.

"It's lovely, it's quiet, it's like being up in the mountains," said Margaret Ross, whose home of 27 years lost most of its roof in the fire and will have to be demolished. "On a full-moon night you see the big moon come peeking out over that ridge."

The market created by that enthusiasm for hilly terrain, joined with improved grading equipment and inflated housing costs, created a construction boom in Glendale's foothills in the 1980s.

From the massive Rancho San Rafael subdivision east of the Glendale Freeway, where 400 homes have been built in the past year and 150 more are to be completed this year, to a 43-home project beginning near La Crescenta, just north of the city, hillsides are hot properties in and around Glendale. The name of the game is elevation, as the Rancho San Rafael neighborhoods names make clear: Monteverde ("green mountain"), Las Colinas ("the hills") and Vista Cielo ("heaven view").

Said Gary Emsiek, a vice president for Homes by Polygon, which developed Rancho San Rafael: "It's a real strange dichotomy--everybody wants to live on view property, and view property only comes about when you build on a hillside."

Development proposals being brought before the City Council later this year include 25 houses in Glenoaks Canyon and between 47 and 61 sought by Polygon for the land behind Youngsuk Jun's property.

Large hunks of undeveloped hills surround the city of Glendale, and their future depends largely on politics and the housing market, development opponents say.

In the past, development detractors have fought new construction largely on grounds other than fire. They recited the familiar litany of homeowner complaints, saying the subdivisions would ruin their views, drag down their property values, bring more traffic to their streets and crowd their children's schools.

Sometimes they sprinkled in concerns about drainage and mudslides on the denuded slopes. Fire hazards only arose obliquely, they said--What would be done to prevent fires during construction? What kind of roofs would the houses have? Sometimes they even found themselves opposing extra fire-access roads requested by the city because they saw them as more scars in their hills.

Aside from the moratorium, the true impact of which is a matter of debate, anti-development successes have been few.

"We fought the development in the hills for a long time," said John Zachman, spokesman for the defunct Verdugo Highlands Homeowners Assn., which initially objected to the Rancho San Rafael project. "But most of us became more reasonable. We understood that there was going to be development and finally reached an agreement with the developers."

That agreement included preservation of more than 200 acres of open space, which Zachman thinks was a pretty fair deal.

Another anti-development success came when a 104-unit apartment complex proposed for three acres in Verdugo Canyon, in 1985, was blocked by the City Council after vigorous outcry from neighbors.

Less successful was homeowner opposition to removal of a ridge in the Verdugo Mountains. In April, bulldozers began slicing 250,000 cubic yards of earth to fill in a pit inadvertently created during construction of the 197-lot Oakmont View subdivision, which afforded views of the the Oakmont Country Club.

Although last week's fire is certain to add one more issue to the debate, developers and city officials contend that fire-prevention measures required in new construction drastically lessen the chances of involvement in a blaze.

Emsiek, at Polygon, observed that the fire nearly circled the Rancho San Rafael project, but never slipped through its Mediterranean gates. "If you look at it from the air, it looks like the hole in the middle of a doughnut," he said.

Zachman agreed that restrictions placed on new development may hinder the spread of fire, but he said: "If you push that logic to the extreme, it says take down the whole mountain and put in houses. . . . If you cut down the mountain, you have the San Fernando Valley, right?"

Instead of hampering new development, the fire most likely will propel movements toward tougher safety laws. In interviews, council members said they may take more drastic action against wood roofs--perhaps even forcing existing roofs to be changed. Councilman Dick Jutras said he plans to propose requiring outdoor sprinkler systems for homes with large lots.

Those proposals may meet with resistance from a minority of hillside homeowners, who prefer to ignore the perils of their location. One resident of Foxkirk Drive, whose house survived unscathed while six neighbors' burned, was insistent: "We've never considered this a vulnerable area," said Louis Morreale. "This is NOT a brush area."

Those who were burned out seemed hardly ready to abandon their prized hillside lots.

Wednesday was the second time Margaret Ross has had to evacuate her Foxkirk Drive house because of fire. Yet she, like all of the other fire victims interviewed, said she will rebuild.

"It's been since '64 that we had the other big one and I'm 74," she said. "So, if it gives us another 20 years, that'll be all right."

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